The new global laborers: when economics fuels a middle class migration


in career,identity,psychic limbo,society

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As many world economies downshift, a typical question of global citizens shifts too. “Where would I like to live?” becomes “Where can I find a job?”

Here in Prague it’s become harder for Americans not just to find work, but to face the rigorous visa process to live and work legally. Some say this is a response to the USA’s increased visa restrictions on Czech visitors. Others think the Czech Republic is tightening its borders like Western Europe.

Where I lived in California, Mexican day laborers would wait on street corners and in parking lots of home improvement stores in the hope that a farmer or contractor would drive by and enlist their help for the day. While the American government cracks down on these undocumented immigrant workers who’ll do the jobs citizens often won’t, so too are they cutting mainstream jobs such as teachers and doctors.

Since my husband and I were both made redundant at our international school in Prague, we’ve discovered few local availabilities willing or permitted to hire Americans. We started to look elsewhere to find that some of the best economies are in the worst places, like the Arab Emirates, which may be in the starting phases of bloody revolutions.

Our gaze is now settling on Istanbul, a place geographically near Europe and one that still has its doors wide open to Americans. Amazingly, my husband can make more money there than we both do here, and much more than in the States.

How can it be more economically viable to stay abroad than move back to our passport country?

Have we become the middle class version of day laborers, going wherever an employer will have us? Seeking our “American dream” of a good job, savings and the hope of upward mobility — outside the USA, because it just isn’t available there anymore?

How have economics fueled your migrations?

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan global nomad whose first novel, American Monsters, was released in 2010 and will be re-released in an illustrated second edition in Fall 2011.

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  • Anonymous

    This was sent to me on Twitter as I touched on this economic refugee issue in a recent article. I really think it’s what is going on these days, and a research area I’d like to pursue.

    Just lately Istanbul has popped into my world several times, so I’d love to know how it goes.

    Thanks for the post.

    Val (@farwawayhammer)

  • Anastasia

    At TEDGlobal conference today, the author of THE SPIRIT LEVEL: WHY GREATER EQUALITY MAKES SOCIETIES STRONGER said ” If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”

  • Anastasia

    I thought of your post, Sezin, when visiting a (new to me) site today: NOMADTOPIA.  “What better way to adapt than to go where you can find what you need, rather than staying in one place and starving (literally or metaphorically)?” asks Amy Scott, the location-indie editor at the heart of the site, in a post about the negative connotations of the label ‘nomad’. Sounds pretty smart, actually. 

  • Elizabeth Briel

    What an incredible post Sezin, and kudos to you and your husband at looking at different options.  There are so many reasons to move – and visas are a fundamental one. What are your criteria for a place? Economics? Climate? Are you looking at increasing your copywriting/editing work as well?

     We have moved different places for many reasons: projects (Cambodia), following a good job (Australia), lifestyle (Thailand), climate (Sicily), opportunities (Hong Kong and Korea). Our move next year will be driven by two major factors: 1. I’m following the art, and 2. the language of the new country is one we both want to learn.

    • Sezin

      Thank you, Elizabeth! We definitely look at economics as number one. I always make sure there is a university in the place since that has been my specialty with proofreading for 7 years now. Number two would be food, since I have discovered that I am healthiest on a fish, tofu and soy diet. We considered moving to Ethiopia, but I was concerned that their very meat-heavy diet and lack of soy options would make my health backslide again. I will definitely go there to visit, but to live, it’s probably not the best option.

      Climate is very important, but we also wanted to stay in Europe, and since the options in the warm Euro countries are very limited (Spain, Italy, France – impossible for Americans to get visas) we had to decide if we’d like to remain in Europe or move to Asia or South America, which have better weather but not as strong economies. In the end we are moving to Cologne, Germany and I check the weather every day and see that it has a similar climate to Prague, but is consistently 10 degrees warmer than here. That will make a world of difference!

      Learning the language, yes! We’ll be learning German right from the get-go. After all these years of listening to the harsh sounds of Czech, German sounds positively mellifluous!

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    Great article raising interesting questions. Visited Prague in February and enjoyed it despite the bitter cold. Sorry to hear it’s constricting. Some of this is certainly a result of global economic considerations, hopefully not politically motivated as well.


    Great article raising interesting questions. Visited Prague in February and enjoyed it despite the bitter cold. Sorry to hear it’s constricting. Some of this is certainly a result of global economic considerations, hopefully not politically motivated as well.

    • Sezin

      Yikes, yes, February is one of the coldest months to visit. I definitely think the changes are politically motivated as the Czech Republic tries to get on par with Western Europe in terms of immigration. I find it quite sad because there are still so many people here who don’t speak English and they are really going to have problems finding teachers who are able to live and work here. The Brits have so many options being members of the EU, unless they really are addicted to horrible weather then they would likely choose warmer climes.

  • Anastasia

    Has anyone used the Expat Explorer tool to help decide where to move? It’s from HSBC and based on their annual surveys of expats worldwide. You can see how different countries rank based on economics and other criteria, and you can factor in your other wishes and your situation.

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  • Marty_rajandran

    Food for thought. The world, especially the world of jobs has changed so much, it is hard to know what is best, where is best, is there a best. I have always believed that ones job is to earn money to live so that we can do the work we really want to do….sometimes they are the same, often not. Not sure that this is still possible in this climate of uncertainty for the workers…..but a great time for those that control jobs and the markets. Have a look at the Alternet post on child labour in Maine….allowing children to work 50 hours a week…..of course no benefits, no insurance, and not the wages that an adult earner should earn……

    • Anonymous

      My whole consulting practice, and the quest I’ve been on the past 10 years  are based upon the premise that we can (and should) pursue work that is in alignment with what we really want to do. I believe our greatest service to the world is by doing the thing that calls to us the strongest. Isn’t that the whole purpose of a vocation? When I moved to Turkey in 2002 I’d lost a career and my identity by following my husband to his native country. The search for myself has turned into a brand new career. It is definitely work I love, work I’m being paid for, and work that lets me go where I’m called to … or where my husband is called to go as is our situation at the moment. If you can’t find what you’e looking for, I say create it.

      • Sezin

        “If you can’t find what you’re looking for, I say create it.” That is a wonderful philosophy, Tara. These days especially us creative types must do that if we are to have the money to live but also do what we love.

        I definitely think you are on the right path, Tara. You are a grand inspiration to me.

    • Sezin

      Marty, can you share that link here about Maine? I think that is an interesting contrast to what I’m talking about. Amazing that people with multiple Master’s degrees and PhD’s can’t get jobs and yet children are working! Wow!

  • Susanna Perkins

    Didn’t realize Istanbul was still a good place for Americans to work, I’ll have to find out more. Thanks for the great information. 

    • Sezin

      Hi Susanna,

      Indeed it is, and the salaries for “just” teachers are phenomenal. Definitely check it out. We’ve also discovered that Americans can also still get visas in Germany because they are the only EU nation which has a work exchange agreement with the US.

      Best of luck to you!


    • Anastasia

      Thank you kindly for dropping by, Susanna. If you plan to investigate Istanbul expat/retirement options, try joining the network (I don’t know if you have to live here to be a member, tho)

  • Anastasia

    Thanks for another timely piece, Sezin!

    It’s striking to imagine that middle and lower class globally mobile people might be converging in their reasons for being globally mobile.

    Other resources this brings to mind, which focus on finding “First World comfort without paying for it”: ESCAPE FROM AMERICA magazine, Future Expats Forum by Susanna Perkins who’s not an expat yet but is sharing her journey to becoming one, and retiring that way.

    Then there’s the newly-launched Expat Workforce site that promises to give employers First World English-speaking talent without paying for it (and give educated, professional expats access to global employers). Worth a look.

    • Sezin

      Thank you for posting this, Anastasia!

      Those are great resources you’ve shared and wherever my husband and I end up I will definitely be looking into those more.

      I agree that its not only the financial economy that can fuel these kinds of middle class migrations. For example, my husband and I do not want to own a car and so many of the places we consider are ones that either have great public transportation or life can be arranged without needing a vehicle to commute or simply get around. This environmental reasoning is another part that keeps us from returning to the States.

      Never would I have imagined that the return to America could be so grim for us. As a child, all I wanted was to live there and now I search for every alternative before considering that one.

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